License to Be…(Poem, Reflections & Pageantry)

READ MY POEM, “SUGARCANE”

This weekend sparked celebrations, debates, and many questions. From my viewpoint, they centered around Nigeria, black lives/respectability politics, and pageantry.

For one, it was Nigeria’s week to “celebrate” 59 years of independence. On my social media timelines, most people decided it was less of something to celebrate and more something to realize and reflect on: a) realize it’s been 59 years since we became a sovereign country, and b) reflect on why we’re at where we’re at as a country after “all this time”.

It’s an interesting debate to juxtapose with a different conversation had among black Americans and the systemic issue of race relations in governance (i.e. police brutality and killings of unarmed black people). There’s a lot I could write about that (which I will, in a separate post) but I bring this up mostly to say that the tug of war within my identity -both as a person of direct Nigerian descent and as someone born in the U.S. – felt particularly strained this time around.

And what I noticed I’ve been missing is the therapy of my pen. I entered into my first even pageant competition this week also, and as part of my platform and talent I decided to recite poetry. I can’t remember the last time I wrote creatively. For as long as I can remember, I was a writer (wrote and published my first short story at the age of six). Somewhere along life and responsibilities, I decided that deserved less of my attention.

Then frankly, a lot of frustrating events happened in both my personal and professional life. And as a spiritual person, I started to see patterns that I strongly believe were delivering a message. I not only needed to write again, but I had a very specific call to write about the battle to be as a woman.

More specifically, I find myself in a position that a significant number of other women find themselves in. I’m a first-generation daughter of African immigrants, raised predominately in a community of American descents of slaves/black Americans, finding myself marginalized on both ends of this identity. From both perspectives, it’s very clear that women of darker complexion (particularly on the African ancestry side) will always have the least license to be their full selves.

I’ve seen this in my journey as a friend, romantic & business partner, student, child and even a stranger walking down the street.

And what came to my mind during my pageant experience is how we’re imprisoned by this marginalization in our minds before it can manifest as physical, economic, political or emotional abuse. For example, I tried to talk myself into dropping out of the pageant SEVERAL times, even up to the 15 minutes before the show. Why? I thought I was too old. But what I really think is that I was “too old” for a woman. The day after the pageant, I started looking up age requirements for the most famous pageant competitions (i.e. Miss USA, Miss Universe) and I realized this is indoctrinated into us. The most prominent competitions require contestants to be younger than 28 years old, and they usually expect you to come with a wide breadth of accomplishments to the competition by (or before) that age.

So I don’t have any issue with opportunities to celebrate women, especially hard-working, underserved women. But it’s interesting that when we decide to celebrate us, it still costs so much. Literally financially (the money it costs for the hair, makeup and outfits to look like you belong) but also a lot of emotional labor and striving. It’s almost as if there’s two choices:

  1. being outstanding according to our standards so that we can at least commodify you/earn a ROI on celebrating your womanhood;
  2. be invisible otherwise.

I joined my pageant this week mainly to get my head out of all the stress coming from my job and figuring out the next stage of my professional journey. So it was my choice to put myself out there – no one forced me, and I didn’t think it was something I had to do. However, I watched my younger contestants during the show and while a lot of them were smart, bright and had amazing personalities, I’d think all of us thought we’d had to be there. Or risk being overlooked, outdated, left out, unaccomplished, meaningless…

Luckily we were able to turn what could have escalated into a stressful situation into a chance to build friendships. I was a lot older than most of the young women but I can still see myself connecting with them, whether as a mentor or a friend. In the midst of chaos and pressures to be the best, we found it best to plant the seeds for a sincere sisterhood. For that I’m so proud.

I’m also proud I found the courage to stick through the experience, because it taught me something. I’m letting something outside of myself convince me to self-inflict limitations on myself. I’m convinced it comes from being a woman and believing “I have to” do certain things in order to be seen or taken seriously. The only thing I had to do, in hindsight, was put myself in a situation that would force me to have the cathartic release I needed to let go of past hurt and shame (personal and professional) in order to move into a very important chapter in my life.

Long story short, you’ll be hearing a lot more from me moving forward about the woman – the black/African woman – setting herself free from the handcuffs society convinced her to clasp on herself. My work with Karfi will still continue, and I’m still extremely passionate about economic opportunities through entrepreneurship in the African diaspora. But as a believer in signs, I see my North star shining brighter over an area not explored deeply or honestly enough. It also sits over a place that has nothing to do with purpose at all, and everything to do with just being a whole person. That includes using my platforms, time and energy to get involved in things that make me happy just…because. So you’ll also see more poetry from me, but I’m not limiting myself again to ways I decide to express myself from different angles.

In other words, there won’t always seem to be a direct line between what I decide to share and how I decide to share it, but I will promise that the message will always be clear. So bear with me as I tune in to what that message will be and how to communicate it effectively, creatively, in a way that sparks a real shift in the way we present ourselves as woman to the world.

For starters, here’s the poem that brought me out of my 20+ years of repressed creativity. It’s titled “Sugarcane”. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Toa Jibu

Barua-pepe haitachapishwa. Fildi za lazima zimetiwa alama ya *

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